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Grapes may be Anatolia’s most ancient crop but the birthplace of Dionysus still produces an abundance of tempting varieties – from succulent bunches of fresh fruit to the sweetest of sultanas, and even world-class wines. Grapes also play a vital role in Classic Turkish Cuisine. Text and photograph by Berrin Torolsan
In the first book of his ten-volume travelogue, the indefatigable Evliya Çelebi describes a spectacular ancient grapevine that he saw in Urla, on the Aegean coast, in 1671. The vine’s trunk was so large that two men could just about embrace its girth, and the crown so enormous that it formed a roof over the entire marketplace. Its branches were so thickly interwoven that not a single sunbeam could penetrate. Thousands of bunches of grapes hung like chandeliers from this leafy canopy. Over time skilled farmers had grafted onto this vine numerous different varieties of grape, which bore yellow, green, red, white and black fruit, even winter varieties. In all there were 37, among them kadın parmağı, tergömlek, kıradına, kumla, rezaki, beylerce and misket. “It is something worth seeing,” says Evliya. “When this Fakir was there, the grapes were ripe, thanks be to God, and I was able to taste two varieties.”
Most of the varieties Evliya lists were lost for ever in the First World War and the troubled times that followed. That monumental vine is also long gone, but new generations of vines thrive in Urla, one of the leading wine-producing areas for thousands of years, renowned in ancient times for supplying Rome. And seedless “sultana” grapes were introduced to the West from nearby Izmir, giving the name sultana to seedless varieties everywhere.
The rich volcanic soil fed by alluvial sediments from the Meander and Gediz rivers combines with the climate to create an excellent ecosystem for Aegean vineyards. Apart from the high plateaux of the east and the wet valleys of the Black Sea, the whole of Anatolia is a country of vines, and deservedly the birthplace of Dionysus. With the olive, the grape is possibly Anatolia’s oldest crop. Vineyards growing below the volcanic cones of Cappadocia can clearly be seen in the wall paintings of Çatalhöyük, the Neolithic site dating back to 7000 bc. Those vineyards are still there, producing the best grapes for both eating and making wine.
Leaving the complex subject of viticulture to the experts, like Evliya Çelebi, I admire the chandeliers of grapes that hang from pergolas in every Turkish town and village. The cultivated grapevine, Vitis vinifera, is a resilient plant, climbing with its tendrils up to 20 metres. Adaptable to climates from the Atlantic to the Himalayas, it is part of almost every nation’s culture, but it grows wild in profusion in the Caucasus and Central Asia, where botanists believe it may have originated.
When Henry III of Castile sent Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo as ambassador to the court of Tamerlane in Samarkand in 1403, the envoy stressed in his accounts that on his travels in Central Asia he was constantly offered excellent wine and abundant fruit, especially grapes and melons.
A few years later, in 1414, another envoy to Tamerlane’s court, Chen Cheng, was most impressed by the abundance of small, sweet seedless grapes at Lükchün, near Turfan in western China. Today China is the largest exporter of seedless raisins in the world – over 155,000 metric tons are sent abroad, almost all from the vineyards of Turfan.
The way the native Uighurs dry their grapes must also be an ancient practice. After the autumn harvest, bunches are hung in traditional drying cubicles known as chünche. Naturally ventilated by hot desert air that enters through holes in mud-brick walls, the grapes are perfectly air-dried in 40 days without losing their emerald-green colour.
The Turkish word for grape, üzüm, probably derives from the Uighur. Mahmud of Kashgar’s 11th-century lexicon of Turkic languages says that nearly all the Turkish-speaking groups of Central Asia used the term then, and derivations of it are still used today by most Turkic peoples.
The best table grapes in Istanbul are the fragrant, delicate-skinned çavuş from the northern Aegean island of Bozcaada, ancient Tenedos, and the sweet seedless sultaniye grapes from around Izmir. The Sea of Marmara, especially around Bursa, is famous for the jewel-like, honey-scented müşgüle, originating in a village of the same name near Iznik. The fragrant misket, which ranges in colour from golden to deep purple, and is cultivated around Ankara and Konya, is excellent as a table grape and indispensable for making wine. Muscat grape varieties the world over are believed to come from the Anatolian misket. Parmak, with its elongated white grapes, and purple bululu from Cappadocia are preserved for winter in cool tufa caves. And so fine are the freckled amber grapes of kınalı yapıncak from Thrace that they have inspired poets. These are just a few of the varieties that come to mind.
Last, but for me not least, are my grandfather’s grapes, which I remember from childhood. They grew in arcades of climbing vines on his farm in Istanbul – not as monumental as Evliya’s vine in Urla, but similar in principle. It was bliss in autumn to walk through this tunnel, with its dangling bunches of grapes in every colour of the rainbow. I was very young but it is still something I visualise when I want to think of something really happy.
Besides being delicious fresh in season, it is the fact that grapes can be dried and kept for later that makes them so valuable. The English raisin, a term that covers all dried grapes, comes from the French raisin; varieties with minuscule black grapes known in Turkish as kuş üzümü, or “bird grape”, used to be known in Britain as “raisins of Corinth”, though today we would call them currants. In the 17th and 18th centuries, this tiny dried black grape, much used in Turkish cooking, would be brought from Vostica (modern Vostizza) on the Gulf of Corinth to the Topkapı Palace kitchens. Most probably the same vineyards supplied British bakers who still use currants as the main ingredient of Eccles cakes. The name Corinth soon corrupted to “currant”. When these tiny grapes were later cultivated on the Greek island of Zante, they became known as “Zante currants”.
Seedless dried golden sultanas have been exported to the West from Izmir since the 17th century. Turkey is still one of the leading suppliers, after China and the USA.
All types of grapes can be dried and stored for winter, to be eaten as snacks or for use in cooking. There are many ways to capture their sugary goodness. The most common is to boil grape juice down to the flavoursome, slightly caramelised amber syrup known as pekmez (grape molasses). In an ancient method, still used today, a white earth known as pekmez toprağı is added to the juice before cooking: the lime in it works as a clarifying agent. Philip Iddison, one of the organisers of the Oxford Food Symposium, describes pekmez in his book Leaves from a
“Grape juice is boiled down to a syrup or sugary solid. It is various shades of brown from medium to almost black and is an excellent source of natural sugar. We bought it in wooden tubs each winter to supplement the breakfast jams. It was mid brown and initially had the consistency of thick honey; however in central heating it soon turned into a thick liquid. It is delicious. The more liquid forms are drunk during the winter as a breakfast tonic against cold weather.”
“They take raisins and have them ground up, and, when they are ground and pounded, they throw them into a wooden vessel. They then pour over them a fixed quantity of hot water and mix it in and carefully cover the vessel and allow the mixture to ferment for two days. If you taste it when it is beginning to ferment, it would seem disagreeable owing to its excessive sweetness; but afterwards it takes on a somewhat acid flavour, and if mixed with something sweet it is very pleasing to the palate. It makes a delicious drink, especially if cooled by plenty of snow, which is always obtainable in Constantinople.”
Busbecq also describes in detail the method used to pickle grapes for winter. The grape pickle served at Mehmed II’s table came in earthenware jars from Gallipoli, on the Dardanelles, which remained the chief supplier to the Topkapı for generations of his descendants. The importance of vinegar can be gauged from the fact that Evliya reports the sirkecibaşı, or chief vinegar-maker, in Istanbul as having a thousand dönüm (some 250 acres) on the Golden Horn on which he grew misket grapes specifically for making vinegar.
Verjuice is another acidic agent that was used by palace chefs by the barrel-load. Since at least the 17th century, verjuice has been made from the sour koruk grape, which does not sweeten when ripe. According to Evliya, the fruit grew all year round in Bursa.
As to the healing properties of grapes, whether fresh or dried, they are the stuff of legend, of folklore – and of modern medicine. Grapes are scientifically proven to have anti-ageing as well as medicinal properties. The skin of black grapes contains resveratrol, a powerful antioxidant, and the pips help red blood cells to multiply. Science reveals that grapes stimulate three main organs: the liver, the kidneys and the lungs, all of which play a role in clearing the body of toxins.
In the words of the 11th-century physician Ibn Sina, or Avicenna, as he is known to the West, “Eat grapes in autumn!”
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